For many members of the media, the upcoming impeachment trial of Donald Trump will be the among biggest stories that they will cover during their lifetimes.
You can imagine their reaction, therefore, to what is being described as “an unprecedented crackdown on the Capitol press corps” by the Senate sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol Police over “additional security screening and limited movement within the Capitol” for reporters who are used to operating under the normal day to day rules for media access while covering Congress, according to a report at Roll Call, a website specializing in news from Capitol Hill.
The standoff over the rules that will govern those credentialed reporters and photographers whom senators interact with on a daily basis is the subject of a dispute between Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger and the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a panel made up of colleague-elected journalists that helps oversee press operations and works to ensure press access to public officials and proceedings in Congress.
The security officials are primarily concerned with the safety and protection of members of Congress and the Capitol Building facilities, while the Committee of Correspondents — having had all their suggestions for the best ways to compromise on the proposed restrictions rejected by the two officials — are worried that the restrictions will hinder their abilities to do their jobs and provide the public with timely information on the progress of the trial.
The Committee accuses the two men of shooting down every counterproposal they have made “without an explanation of how the restrictions contribute to safety rather than simply limit coverage of the trial.”
“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age,” the Standing Committee of Correspondents said in a letter today.
The Committee points to the planned rules that will surround the delivery of the articles of impeachment from the House of Representatives to the Senate — rules that were not in place during the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 — that will restrict media coverage to just a single video camera with no still photography or audio recording allowed.
That restriction places non-video-based media outlets such as radio and text-based publications at a significant disadvantage to their TV and streaming-based competition.
Other restrictions rankle the journalists as well. According to Roll Call:
“During the trial, a single press pen will be set up on the second floor of the Senate, where lawmakers enter and exit the chamber. Reporters will be confined to the pen, unable to move with senators. No movement will be allowed outside the corrals, and reporters and photographers will need to be escorted to and from the pen.”
In other words, the reporters won’t be able to walk and talk with Senators as they enter and exit the proceedings for interviews.
The security screenings in the Capitol building will also be doubled up, meaning that reporters will have to undergo a second full security check after their initial entry into the building just to enter the Senate chamber where the trial will be held, significantly slowing down their ability to enter and exit the room to report on breaking news.
This may force reporters to watch the proceedings on a video feed outside the trial itself in order to file their reports in a timely fashion and deprive them of any view of participants outside the sightlines of the video camera lens.
Despite hours of negotiations between the disaffected Standing Committee of Correspondents and the security officials, no movement has been seen in their efforts to loosen restrictions. Part of the issue is the large number of reporters not usually assigned to the Capitol Hill beat and unaware of the rules of the road in Congressional reporting that will be covering the impeachment trial.
Capitol Police consider the unusually large media presence expected to attend to be a “life safety issue” for legislators.
“Allowing members to move in this important responsibility without having to fight their way on to an elevator or … on to the vehicles between the buildings. I think that’s a legitimate concern,” said James Ziglar, who served as Senate sergeant-at-arms during the Clinton impeachment trial.
“There were people coming to the Hill with press credentials that had never been on the Hill,” he said.
While the safety and security of both the media and the people that they are there to cover are of paramount importance, ensuring proper media access for those reporters covering the biggest political story of the century to date is equally crucial to guarantee that the public is properly informed about what is going on in a timely manner.
A simple C-Span feed without commentary and background just won’t be enough to fulfill that guarantee.
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Original reporting by Katherine Tully-McManus at Roll Call.